U.S. Intellectual History Blog

On Eric Cazdyn’s The Already Dead

Over the past several weeks, I have been exploring the topic of interruption… a theme to which I will return in the coming weeks.

In a death-haunted moment, however, it seems appropriate to turn, finally, to a eulogistic text about which I have been meaning to write for months, Eric Cazdyn’s The Already Dead: The New Time of Politics, Culture, and Illness.[1]

Already Dead

In any event, Cazdyn’s book, it turns out, has quite a lot to do with interruption.

Death and illness, along with natural disasters, are humanity’s oldest interruptions. Though Cazdyn (Distinguished Professor of Aesthetics and Politics at the University of Toronto) writes primarily about capitalism’s recent mutations vis-à-vis “health” and “mortality,” he situates the fragility of bodies and the terminality of life as facts that have remained constant as different regimes of accumulation have come and gone. There was death and illness in slavery and feudalism; there will be death and illness when communism arrives. For a Marxist like Cazdyn that transhistorical continuity makes death and illness particularly potent analytical objects.

Cazdyn writes as a Marxist, and also as a Freudian. Like many Freudian Marxists, Cazdyn dwells with the revisions that the later Freud made to psychoanalysis’s theory of human motivation, beginning with the key text Beyond the Pleasure Principle (1920).

Cazdyn’s book is, to a significant extent, about the infamous “death drive” that Freud introduces in that work, certainly. But it is also more than that, more important than that—it is a positive step towards making the “death drive” a politically useful notion (in this way, it might be seen as part of a larger literature than includes the works of Left intellectuals who, like Cazdyn, enjoy an intimate—which is not to say conflict-free—relationship with the ideas of Jacques Lacan, a group that would include Kojin Karatani, Slavoj Zizek, Jodi Dean, Teresa De Lauretis, Catherine Malabou, among many others).

To explain the “death drive” properly would take the rest of this post, and more. One can get at it fairly quickly, however, by thinking about what the “death drive” is not. However jumbled Freud’s presentation of “death drive” might be, he is clear about the fact that what he is looking for is a motor of human action that is not, on the one hand, the Utilitarian hedonic calculus, nor, on the other, the psychoanalyst’s “pleasure principle” as disciplined by the “reality principle.” Freud is looking, as Ornette Coleman once said, for “something else.” Desire for pleasure, however chastened by the exigencies of life, strives for a goal. The “death drive” repeats, going in circles. As creatures that think narratively, temporally, optimistically, “death drive” is almost inaccessible to the human imagination. But what, Freud asks, if it actually makes the world go round?

For the Lacan of the 1970s, who earlier in his career had promulgated the ethical maxim “Above all, do not give up on your desire,” drive (the “death” gets dropped somewhere along the line, but remains semantically important) assumes pride of place as a therapeutic priority. Whereas once the repressed needed help jump-starting their capacity to desire, after 1968 the newfangled, all-too-desiring neurotics (flitting from fad to fad, bed to bed) now needed help getting to what they really wanted. (Should one want to understand the conflict between Lacan and his ex-disciple Felix Guattari, and Guattari’s attacks on Lacan in the books he co-authored with Gilles Deleuze, this shift from desire to drive would be a good place to start).

The context into which The Already Dead strides, then, is a particular formation around Freudian Marxism and a certain valorization (and yet chronic refusal to be properly explained) of the notion of “death drive.” What happens to the “death drive,” Cazdyn asks, when capitalism flips from a lebensphilosophie to a necropolitics? What happens when the system’s contradictions mean the rusting of older apparatuses of capture and the rise of a new obituarial logic: because everyone is already dead, contemporary bureaucracies embrace that extreme form of indifference for which neoliberal thought has been preparing us for many decades.

***

Eric Cazdyn is my favorite kind of author: one who understands the value of a good joke. His very serious book expertly deploys many psychoanalytically provocative witticisms for great rewards. Perhaps the most strategically effective such joke—certainly the one that transports us most directly to The Already Dead’s preoccupations––is this Zizekian one:

In Poland, officers have orders to shoot and kill anyone out on the street after 10 PM. It is ten minutes to ten and one of the guards sees a man hurrying along and shoots him dead. The other officer, perplexed and worried, turns to his partner and asks why he shot so soon. “I knew the fellow––he lived far from here and in any case would not be able to reach his home in ten minutes, so to simplify matters, I shot him now.”

Here, we see the logic of the “already dead” at its most raw and unvarnished. The political point would seem to be this—what would it mean for the victim of this overzealous police officer to overhear this exchange? What changes when we know we are “already dead”? What impossible projects become newly thinkable?

I can’t help but suggest an additional joke that strikes me as apposite, from the treasury of Jewish humor.

An older man sits in a doctor’s examining room. The doctor walks in, with a concerned look on his face. “Mr. Cohen,” he says, “I am afraid you have cancer.” The man replies: “cancer or no cancer, the important thing is that one is in good health!”

***

Cancer hovers at the center of The Already Dead. “I was diagnosed with a certain form of leukemia,” Cazdyn writes, “which at the time of my diagnosis was understood to be terminal but is now considered chronic by way of a new targeted drug that promises to manage the illness far into the future.”

Cazdyn survives to write The Already Dead because of a drug called Gleevec (about which much of the most fascinating and poignant writing revolves). “This drug costs such an absurd amount of money (over $45,000 a year),” Cazdyn notes, “that the expense caused my application for Canadian permanent residency to be initially rejected.” Thus, while waiting to see if he was to be deported to his native country, the United States (despite a high-status job as a professor of comparative literature at the University of Toronto and a private insurance plan separate from the healthcare coverage offered to all citizens by the Canadian state and the province of Ontario), Cazdyn experienced something like an extended submersion in living death. To be deported to the US would mean denial of access to Gleevec (no insurance company would offer a plan to someone with a preexisting condition like leukemia); at the same time, Cazdyn had been declared a “not-Canadian,” casting doubt on his ability to continue his treatment in Toronto.

The story has a happy ending: Cazdyn’s case came up for review at about the time that several other high-profile cases involving immigration and discrimination against the sick were making their way to the Canadian Supreme Court. His deportation was reversed, and his disease is now in remission. But, for Cazdyn, the moral of the story is that the aleatory character of post-globalization life has accelerated so rapidly as to effect a qualitative shift in the texture of political reality. One could die because patent-protected drugs are so costly; thousands do every day. No one would be surprised by such a death. Somehow it would be disavowed, wished away, or, most likely, rendered as punishment for some sin, crime, or indulgence.

Cazdyn covers a dizzying array of examples of the way this shift has become normalized–drawn from popular culture, cinema, and literature. One must pause to marvel at the facility with which he melds such analysis with moving personal essays.  The wide scope of The Already Dead makes a succinct review of its contents difficult—the interested reader will surely be happiest picking up a copy and working through it.

I would like to conclude, however, with a little bit of highlighting, some neon yellow markering, on what is among The Already Dead’s most compelling and original sections: a consideration of three theorists of “already death” (Slavoj Zizek, Jean-Luc Nancy, and Margaret Lock).

By pursuing a fine-grained comparison and contrast of Zizek’s renovation of “death drive” by way of the horror film trope of the “undead,” Nancy’s deconstructive meditations upon his own heart transplant, and Lock’s medical anthropological essays on the difference between Japanese and North American attitudes toward organ donation and transplant surgery, Cazdyn provides an extremely useful scaffolding for those of us who wish to keep thinking about the political dimensions of death’s specrality.

I am particularly moved by Cazdyn’s invocation of the “comic book death”––the ways in which narrative forms like comic book franchises negotiate the contradictions of characters being both dead and alive via an elegant paraconsistent logic. A superhero can be both alive and dead because of the existence of a device called “retcon” or “retroactive continuity,” which, in turns out, is also a name for the way all human memory works. To embrace “retcon,” politically, is to make peace with death in the name of a previously unthinkable immortality. It might mean finally claiming, rather than endlessly asterisking, Keynes’s quip that “in the long run, we are all dead.” We are.

*Eric Cazdyn speaks at UC Santa Barbara on Friday, Feb. 14 at 1 PM, Humanities and Social Sciences Building, Room 4041.


[1] Eric M. Cazdyn, The Already Dead: The New Time of Politics, Culture, and Illness. Durham: Duke University Press, 2012.

8 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Love that Zizekian joke—and your introduction of the uncommon words ‘specrality’ and ‘aleatory’. I guarantee that aleatory is going to see more usage in my historical thinking discussions (i.e. contingency is one of my “9 Cs”), from here on out. – TL

    • Thanks Tim! It should be “spectrality,” I now realize! oops. Spellcheck in Word is decidedly pre-hauntological.

      “Aleatory” and “spectrality” though, I think are terms that historians can really put to good… what we really need is some good conversation between we twentieth century-ists and some Medievalists, who know a lot about the intellectual history of chance/fortune and ghosts.

  2. Kurt,
    You do such a remarkable job interweaving the different registers and modes of this book. Can I push a bit on the central conceit of the book, though? Two of the examples you give of the “already dead”–the Polish soldier joke and Cazdyn’s leukemia–seem to me to be pointing in opposite directions.

    In the Polish joke, the dark humor seems to come from the state’s engulfing of society, that the terror of an absolutist regime has blended with the intimacy of a village, where everyone knows everyone. It’s like a Grover’s Corners run by the Stasi.

    But Cazdyn’s situation is the inverse, with society (understood as the market) engulfing the state, where citizenship has become refigured as market value, and Cazdyn’s life written off as a toxic asset.

    Perhaps Cazdyn’s intentions are to conflate these two arrangements, to argue for an underlying unity. But it seems to me to be rather dangerous to leave this basic dissimilarity unexamined.

    • Andrew: what a great question. I will have to think about it deeply. Cazdyn handles the issue by thematizing globalization and combined and uneven development, in a manner I find very illuminating (and that I think would satisfy your uneasiness with the slapdash quality of my re-presentation here).

      To move from The Already Dead to the more discrete question of the two jokes: on the one hand, a repressive militarized state and a regime of punishing pre-crimes (as in a Philip K. Dick story); and on the other, the brutal bureaucratic indifference of today’s market logic (let’s say, one where cancer is turned into a “journey”, an opportunity to be a hero, a choice, or a punishment): I think the point is that the mutation at the level of sovereignty is actually shared between more and less repressive regime. “Already death” is the common cognitive term shared by the most authoritarian and the most liberal systems, within the current international global arrangement.

      What do you think?

      • Your explanation wasn’t slapdash–I should just read the book!

        I think my objections would get me pretty deep in the weeds of political theology and my objections to the uses of Schmitt that have been de rigueur for much of the Left for the past 10-15 years. I feel that thinking only from the exception/state of emergency as this obliges us to do erases precisely this kind of distinction that it seems Cazdyn elides, and I feel that to elide it actually clouds our perception of what options for resistance or even for thought we have. But as I said, I should probably read the book, which you have really made sound fantastic!

      • Oh thanks.

        I am with you on political theology as a particularly abusable theoretical perspective… one of the reasons I love Cazdyn’s work is that it is more Agambenian than Agamben, to pull a Zizek maneuver–it’s about the ordinary work of sovereignty (the two millionth human being was deported from the US yesterday, the prisons fill up, the President pardons a turkey)… Not an abyss–unless you fall into it–just a blot on the side of the screen. Unless you fall in.

        The best allegorical model here might well be the video game Mario Kart.

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